Category Archives: Social Issues

America the Ambiguous

A few days ago, us Americans oohed and ahhed over environmentally damaging fireworks displays (personally, I’d rather be able to see the stars at night), barbecued with our families and celebrated our independence. I am proud and grateful to be an American, but a little less so than I used to be, back when I wasn’t aware of all the problems this country has.

I love the country — the physical land itself. I can only imagine how glorious it was a couple centuries ago, before its forests were devastated, rivers dammed, lakes polluted and scenery blighted. I love the ideals and philosophies that the Founding Fathers based our constitution and government upon. I love certain things the country still stands for: entrepreneurship, equality and progress.

But I can’t mindlessly retort, as many do, that this is “The Greatest Country On Earth.” We are not the only country with great ideals, progressive people and high standards of living. In fact, the U.S. fails to crack the top 10 of “The Happiest Countries in the World,” and fails short in areas such as health care, education and work/life balance.

Of course, we are a lot better off than many other countries, and I don’t mean to frivolously cast aspersions. But I can’t blindly be obedient, either. Every person should love their native country, but what about North Koreans? At what point can pride and patriotism justifiably become criticism?

Republicans, Democrats, and — what the hell, why put a label on yourself — “The Others” think there are some serious problems with our current government. Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and anyone that isn’t solely fixated on Fox, CNN, MSN and Yahoo can see that we are more and more becoming a country ruled by the CEOs and for the CEOs. Our rights are being subtly and insidiously undermined to the point where you don’t know if you should be seriously freaked out, or carry on as usual. Paranoia or Prescience?

And at what point do you abandon trying to change the system from within and just give up and defect?

Here is a list of cultural differences between the U.S. and European countries. Interestingly, one point made is that “Few Europeans would mind rational criticisms of their country’s government, while a good deal of Americans find them offensive or disrespectful … some Americans go as far as regarding criticism of their government as a personal attack. Europeans are only too happy to hear other people criticizing their own politicians or their country’s problems.”

Here are some things I personally prefer about Europe: the food, architecture, culture, lifestyle, 4-6 weeks mandatory paid time off vacation, shorter work weeks, siestas, less chemicals and pesticides, multi-party systems, more enjoyment of life, less emphasis on job and work, trains and other public transportation, ability to walk and get around a city without a car, labeling of GMOs, bidets, free university education, dress style, sensuality, daily rhythms, aesthetics, coffee and wine, multilingualism, celebration of soccer, and just general outlook on life and beauty of the landscapes (natural and manmade).

To which I’m sure, some red-white-and-blue-blooded Bible Belter will surely scream, then get the hell out! To which I reply, if only I could, I’d take the next plane.

(Oh, and a fellow blogger just wrote a related post, comparing America to the uncool kid who, love him or hate him, is still the center of the world’s attention, and, in some respects, still Number One.)


What I learned from Mr. Buns

The Regal Mr. Buns

“You don’t surprise me enough,” I harangued my poor hardworking husband. So one day he came home with a box from the corner pet store, with a tiny trembling rabbit inside.

I was concerned. Our apartment was small. I didn’t exactly want a pet, with its demands for attention, its tendency to wreak havoc and inflict mess and destruction.

Cats leave hair everywhere. Dogs chew up favorite pairs of high heels. You have to train pets and feed them and walk them and if you want to go out of town, find a babysitter for them. They are a burden.

But just like a reluctant mother after she gets acquainted with her new little baby, I gradually fell in love with Mr. Buns, and he is now a beloved part of our family.

Mr. Buns is kind. An herbivore, he has no aggressive tendencies towards other creatures. He is always on the defense, especially against cats and dogs. His reaction is freeze, thump the ground, run away and hide. He is gentle, and mainly just wants to play, snuggle and relax.

Mr. Buns is fun. He does silly things like eat paper and pizza crusts. He does not like carrots, but he loves lettuce, apples and berries. He is a very picky rabbit. He goes crazy when he hears us pouring his food into his bowl. He likes to explore, to go outside to dig holes, do silly 180 degree jumps and run really fast back and forth. He has all kinds of silly quirks. His official name is Thunder, but he’s afraid of thunder and runs behind the bed when it storms. Every morning, he comes and jumps in our bed to snuggle us until we wake up. He loves to snuggle, but sometimes he likes to be left alone.

Mr. Buns is proud. He will let you pick him up, but he won’t sit on your lap. He will lick and groom the bed or couch, but rarely you. He is potty trained, but if you dare refuse his requests to be petted, he has been known to pee on the bed.

Mr. Buns is wise. He may be quiet (the only sound he has ever emitted are little grunts, when he is scared or mad), but you can see he understands. He knows and loves us. After he is done playing, he always runs back inside the house. If we are ever sad or sick, he comes and puts his head on our lap and lays next to us for hours, clearly comforting us in his sweet bunny way.

Mr. Buns has made me love and understand animals even more. I know that many people love their dogs and cats in this way. I am even more attuned now to the suffering of all animals, domestic, wild and farm.

I don’t believe that, in general, animals were meant to be put in cages. I let Mr. Buns roam freely. I don’t like the thought of birds in cages, or even fish in aquariums. Millions and millions of tropical fish die each year due to the pet industry. Consider this excerpt from Wikipedia:

Fish are caught by net, trap, or cyanide.[31] Collecting expeditions can be lengthy and costly, and are not always successful. Fish can also be injured during collection and/or shipping; mortality rates during shipping are high. Many others are weakened by stress and become diseased.

PETA estimates that 9 out of every ten marine animals die before they even reach the shore:

Few people realize the magnitude of suffering in the captive fish industry—a $300 million worldwide “hobby” responsible for the annual capture of more than 20 million fish, 12 million corals, and millions of other types of marine life.

At least 95 percent of the gentle saltwater fish sold in pet shops have been cruelly ripped from their natural homes. Trappers douse coral reefs with poison in order to stun the fish for easy capture—half the affected fish die painfully on the reef, and 40 percent of survivors die before they reach an aquarium. The cyanide poison that is routinely used in this cruel practice also kills the reefs themselves as well as countless other animals who live and depend on them. In places where trappers do not use cyanide, such as in the waters of Hawaii, nets are used to capture the animals. Almost 67 percent of animals who are caught with nets die from stress, starvation, or injuries. Many fish suffer barotrauma, which occurs when they are forced to surface too quickly, and some are even subjected to organ puncturing, which is done to relieve the visible effects of barotrauma, and fin clipping, which is done to facilitate shipping.

Many domestic animals, especially if they have been bred in captivity, could not survive in the wild (especially not in urban and suburban environments) and many, like Mr. Buns, provide great joy to their owners. Pet therapy for the sick and elderly has been proven highly effective. But I have never been a fan of zoos, circuses, large-scale aquariums (like Sea World) nor the thought of animals being used for research or breeding. And the living conditions for American farm animals are horrific.

There is a major threat facing even traditional pets like dogs, cats, rabbits and birds. From Wikipedia: The Humane Society of the United States estimates that animal shelters care for 6-8 million dogs and cats every year in the United States, of whom approximately 3-4 million are euthanized. There are also major overpopulation problems with other pet species, such as birds and rabbits.

For those who are concerned, I would say consider strongly before getting a pet. Can the pet be happy and well-cared for in your home environment? Can you adopt from a shelter instead of a pet store? Also consider getting involved in animal rights, by signing petitions from these organizations:

The Humane Society of the United States
World Wildlife Fund

Mr. Buns, like all living creatures, is noble. His brain may be smaller, and he may not speak our language, but neither does an infant. It doesn’t make him less aware or deserving of respect and love. All living creatures should be able to live as they were meant to live, designed to live, and have lived for millennia.

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man.” — Chief Seattle

Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the mineral world, the plant world, and the animal world. Do nothing to pollute our Mother, rise up with wisdom to defend her. –Native American teaching

Reading about the end of the world

I wrote this poem last night on a whim. It’s not super-poetic, just what came out while I was writing in my journal. It’s an indictment of myself, and no one else. A portrayal of myself as representative of all of us who feel powerless at the onslaught of bad news, day after day. Just like this guy.

I don’t mean to criticize people who like Facebook and TV — which is, of course, millions upon millions of people. I used those things to stand for all the things which serve to suck our focus, energy, empathy, life force. And the irony is that, for me, reading about all the terrible things that are happening — and making indignant comments as some or another avatar — is as just a ridiculous waste of time. Yes, I may be aware, but what good is it doing anything?

It’s hard to make any change while you are sitting — unless you are sitting on the street in protest as an Occupier, I suppose. But even they, who gave up the couch and the desk and the movie theater seat and the infectious complacency to rail against the machine, found it hard to effect any sort of change. The question is, what can we possibly do?

Some may say that it starts with you. Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And I do try. But there are billions of us, all dependent on systems that are not sustainable. And we’ve allowed corporations who have little thought for ocean health to have more power than national goverments. The result is we just keep connecting online. Reading each others’ comments. Worrying and wondering — what will the world be like in 50 years? Or in two?

Fast News Day

“Everyone Cheats,” Esquire declares,

While alJazeera features a three-page exposé

On ocean dead zones.

It’s already the 9th most-read.

We all know it’s true

Know about those gyres of plastic trash

Twice the size of Texas.

But we just keep clicking.

Sometimes we make a comment

Or respond to one another;

Mystery people, really,

Invisible friends and enemies out in cyber space.

What will they eat tonight? What will they dream?

What new news will make them cry

Or post a hundred comments

Each more futile than the last.

At least we’re not on Facebook

Posting updates about children’s tantrums

Or incessantly uploading pictures to Instagram,

A self-styled paparazzi jubilee.

At least we opt for the documentary, instead of

That Adam Sandler rip-off, eschew Glee and Mad Men

For a little bit of news.

Does it help to be aware of all the wreckage in the world?

The killed-off elephants, the endangered tigers;

If the last tree falls, where will you be?

Reading about it on Mother Jones at 3:30 the next day

And you think about it, then move on to the Huffington Post.

The Tourism Effect

Las Minas waterfall in El Yunque

The population is now about 7 billion, up from 3 billion just five decades ago. And it continues to climb, expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. The world is chock-full of resources, but they may be starting to dwindle under the strain. Some experts foresee shortages of food and water; others wonder where we will get our energy, acknowledging that the “easy oil era” has come to a close. And of course, our massive CO2 output coupled with rapid development, pollution and deforestation is devastating our ecology at a truly alarming rate.

But I want to explore a much more benign – if still unpleasant – side effect of having so many people on the planet: the impact of tourism.

I just returned from Puerto Rico, a lovely trip. While I was hiking in El Yunque, however, I felt like I was in the Disneyland version of a rainforest. The main road was full of cars and exhaust-spewing tour buses; the lookout points and waterfalls swarmed with sightseers. I mean there were dozens upon dozens. I realize that I, too, was a tourist. The irony is that everyone wishes that they could be the only one there.

I couldn’t help but think of how things used to be, back when the Taino natives lived on the island. I imagined them living in harmony with this beautiful environment, bathing in the streams and waterfalls. Columbus described them thus: “They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances.”

On a side note, I highly recommend A Peoples’ History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. In chapter one, he explores how Columbus and co. utterly destroyed these innocent peoples and their culture. You can read it here.

After exploring the main island, we headed to Vieques, which boasts “the world’s brightest bay” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Mosquito Bay is a bioluminescent bay – the water literally glows when it is disturbed due to the presence of tiny dinoflagellates. We went and it was magical. But again, the experience also caused me to reflect and left me rather saddened.

Because the bay isn’t actually the world’s brightest. The title used to belong to a bay in Jamaica, but they lost the honor because they constructed a giant arena on the shore; the glare from the stadium and the boat traffic was so bright and disruptive that you can no longer see the natural glow in its full glory. The same thing happened to the bio bays around Fajardo, a city on the main island of Puerto Rico. The lights from the city drown out the waters’ sparkle. There are several places around the world that boast this same miracle, but they are being lost or have been lost to urban development and tourist disruption. Many organisms were killed by the run-off from DEET-containing bug spray.

And now even Mosquito Bay is threatened. Our guide first arrived there when he was seven and grew up around the waters. He said he used to not be able to see his hand in front of his face. The utter darkness allowed the bay to shine. Now, due to growing popularity with tourists, the town around the bay, Esperanza, is built up and bright (although you can still see so many stars there than you can in most developed areas, a sight just as breathtaking to me as the stars in the water. Most places are so full of night pollution that they have already extinguished a natural wonder our ancestors took for granted). Now you have to kayak into a far corner of the bay to get the full effect.

As per usual, the issue is complicated. I am one of the tourists I inadvertently malign. And tourism can be a boon for impoverished residents. Nevertheless it is sad to see formerly pristine environments and natural wonders being overrun and damaged – something that happens all over the world and will get worse as there are more and more of us on a finite sphere.

In fact, there have been recent discussions of how increased tourism in Antarctica – one of the very few remaining untouched places – will harm this fragile ecosystem. Pollution, oil spills, and introduction of nonnative flora and fauna are a few of the concerns. So little remains of truly wild, uninhabited wildernesses, and when people invade (as I myself would like to), they often change it forever.

I wrote this poem on the plane ride home to express my melancholy:


He came when he was seven

Brought by Uncle Abe

Who now employs him as a guide

For cash-laden tourists.

His friend Bebo, short and dark, comes along

Squirting out some kind of juice

Mosquitoes don’t like.

Back then, when he was seven, there were no tourists

The bay was black and it was his.

Stars sparkled above and below; tiny dinoflagellates

Made the water glow.

Once upon a time the natives of Vieques

Thought those waters evil, as did the Spanish

When they came to look for treasures

Then shipped it all away.

Now there are new lights around the rim

Lights of modern progress, lights of wealth

Proud restaurateurs and hotel proprietors

Lights from pretty houses on the hills.

This is the brightest bay in all the world

Jamaica lost that honor, due to a newly built arena

The boat traffic and fluorescent glare

Made it disappear.

A shark darts beneath my kayak.

Jeffrey is telling the group how he used to swim here as a child.

Now no one is allowed. A ten grand fine.

I dip my feet and hands in and think about what once was.

I’m saddened as they pull our kayaks in.

Don’t buy it. Share it!

I just read a fascinating article about the rise of the new sharing economy. Reading it was, to use a cliché, a breath of fresh air. I was getting so sick of constantly hearing about new products being pumped into the market place, of rampant consumerism, about the way so many people find it necessary to own a car and an iPhone. Environmental destruction  is largely occurring due to our society’s insatiable, wasteful quest for more.

In the sharing economy, the goods that are already out there are shared in a consumer-to-consumer model. This is a win-win: it is more economical and more eco-conscious.

In a Ted talk, a tech entrepreneur named Lisa Gansky made a very valid, if shocking, point: people, on average, use their cars only about 8 percent of the time (and probably could get by with using it a lot less). Cars are, however, the most expensive thing people own/lease next to their residence. Enter a slew of car-sharing start-ups.

Airbnb is one of the fastest growing companies out there. Craigslist and eBay have been a hit for years. There are several other companies that exemplify this concept in different ways. Some are for-profit, others not. Some are completely free (you can borrow someone’s bike for a few hours, for example) while others cost, but cost a lot less than buying new.

So you could borrow a boat, BBQ, or Park City condo the few times you really want/need it instead of paying for it new and then having it lie around unused for years.

I really like this concept of using what already exists instead of generating more and more. I find it a good way to, if not completely eschew capitalism and consumerism, to at least find a happy medium, a compromise. I think it also forces people to stop mindlessly acquiring and really think about what they need, perhaps focusing more on experiences rather than things. I came across an infographic that illustrates how my generation, while still in the pursuit of the American Dream, equates it less with owning a car and a house as status symbols of having made it and more as finding a unique path to fulfillment.

Speaking of American Illusions, this other infographic kind of shatters a few of them. And speaking of coconut oil — okay that’s completely off-topic — but here are a ton of awesome things it can do.

Living off the grid

My dream is to own land in Central America and/or Europe and to build a self-sufficient property. The house would be small, as green as possible, and be outfitted with solar panels and natural materials. I would have an organic garden and a water well, and ideally trade with other nearby farms for other necessities.

I began thinking about this in the past year or so, and I assumed that it was a somewhat novel, radical idea, or at least very uncommon. It turns out that there are a lot of people who live like this and love it. I recently joined World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF), specifically WWOOF Italia, and they sent me 72 pages of amazing farms all around Italy where I could go stay at (and learn how to do a variety of outdoor tasks while getting free lodging, delicious food and wine and a priceless cultural experience). Some have goats and cows and so get raw milk, butters and cheese. Many have beehives. Others have herbs, rose and lavender gardens, animals, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, vineyards, fields, etc. They are inhabited by families who love the natural, outdoor lifestyle and sound like cultured, interesting people. Many have websites, and the photos match the descriptions: utterly beautiful and impressive.

I also just found a video on Youtube that shows people how to build a home and have no mortgage and no utility bills. Which means you wouldn’t be a slave to the system; you would be free.

Besides allowing you to have healthy food, fresh air and clean water; to be financially sound; to be in touch with the natural world and to be active and independent; this lifestyle is a safeguard against rising oil prices, wars, economic catastrophes and future food and water shortages. I think I would be happy if I was in a beautiful natural environment, was able to access a village or town at times, could travel, and had access to books and the internet.

I know that many people, however, would prefer a two-car garage McMansion in a master-planned suburban community. Well, to each his own!

Two amazing documentaries

Last week I watched two documentaries that recently became available to view instantly on Netflix. Burzynski is about a doctor who discovered a potent, non-toxic cure for cancer — and was prosecuted for it by the FDA.

2012: Time for a Change was riveting. It interviews various scholars, scientists and deep, spiritually attuned thinkers to propose an alternate civilization, one where humans, nature and animals can thrive harmoniously. It’s a must see!

Doing it at work

Okay, it’s nothing too exciting. In fact, it is the ultimate in nerdiness: For the past few days, I’ve been listening to and half-watching documentaries while I work and on my lunch break.

I found a site,, that streams them for free. They may not have the latest or the best (Who Killed The Electric Car? for example, teases you with five minutes — I had to order it via Netflix). But there is a tantalizing amount of knowledge at the ready, and it’s nice to take a break from Kanye West and your coworkers’ inane conversations and feed your brain for a bit.

Today I watched Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance,  which pairs affecting images (endless traffic patterns, zombie crowds, the organic splendor of nature contrasted with deadened industrial zones and overdevelopment, the Challenger spacecraft explosion) with haunting music by Phillip Glass; tonal chants of a Hopi prophecy complete the powerful montage. The prophecy, by the way, points to nuclear annihilation. The term “Koyaanisqatsi” means crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.

The other I saw today is The Denial Machine, a fascinating, objectively presented, easy-to-understand explanation of the propaganda war on global warming. Watch it and decide for yourself who are the bad guys, and who the good.

What can we do?

Occupy Wall Street has made it. It’s popular. Talked about. A big hit.

I’ve been following it since the first people got arrested on September 17, back when no one had heard about it and no one knew where it would go. The people in Zuccotti Park and in public spaces all over the world should be commended for their willingness to camp out, to get out there and risk arrest. You can follow their progress here and admire their official declaration of demands here.

So where does that leave those of us who are lame enough to still be sitting comfortably at home, indulging in hot showers and dutifully showing up to work every day (like me)?

Well, you can find a protest nearby at and participate in the big march on October 29th called for at But you can also do something just as fundamental and far-reaching — take a critical look at your daily life and how you could be perpetuating the problems we face.

Of course, none of us are to blame for the major economic and environmental crises. But perhaps we can reevaluate the way we spend and consume, the corporations we feed (are they environmentally responsible? Where do they get their labor and products? Where do they dump their waste?). We can consider not patronizing the big-name financial institutions that may be, in part, culpable. We can be more conscious of how the proliferation of advertising (the average American is exposed to approximately 3000 ads a day) is affecting the way we spend our lives.

We can choose to walk and bike rather than drive everywhere; to buy local; to choose physical activity, activism, arts and culture over passively watching a screen. We can choose to recycle and to educate ourselves. And to do more than we are now; to do as much as we can.

Are you a conditioned consumer?

I, until very recently was (and probably somewhat still am).

Imagine that you were born in a completely different time and place. Ancient Rome. 19th century England. Or that you lived now somewhere in Africa or the Amazon rainforest. You would have a completely different worldview, set of beliefs, and method of interacting and operating.

So consider that your own mentality and behaviors are not necessarily ‘reality’ or ‘right’; they are partly a result of your immediate environment, the time and place you were born, and your upbringing.

I was raised as a typical upper middle class American, Generation Y. Being such, I was raised to shop, to acquire, and to always want more. We lived in a big house with multiple cars, and we were always (or at least the females in the family; the males concentrated on dirtbikes, boats, model planes and the like) seeking out new decor items, new dishes, and most of all new clothes, shoes, purses and beauty products. IT WAS OUR DRUG.

We are trained to believe we need, on some level, all of these things. And that, therefore, money, and credit, is paramount in life. The scary thing was, none of it was ever enough. Like an addict, it was difficult for me to walk by a storefront display or set foot inside the mall or Target without greedily surveying the wares. Once seen, I had to touch and try on. And if it met my approval, I had to have it.

I had bought completely into planned obsolescence. Last semester’s clothes were not good enough. There was still an empty corner yet to fill, a new lipstick to try, the latest accessory to have.

Not to disparage, at all, my hardworking and generous parents. My mother was the daughter of a much-absent, paycheck-to-paycheck single mother and my father was a Cuban immigrant who also came from a low-income household. They worked their way up and achieved much; the children of Boomers, they came of age in the ’70s and became  young parents in the ’80s. Before the ’50s, people lived much differently. Cheap mass production had yet to fuel the economic boom. And my parents, as I said, worked for years to amass what they had and would give me anything they could, which I deeply appreciate.

But over the past couple years — first out of financial necessity, and now out of greater understanding — I have broken the cycle, shattered the spell, and have seen the whole situation with a new perspective. Now stuff just clutters up the small space I have, rapidly depreciates in value (headed for Craigslist, the trash or the Salvation army), or, worse yet, costs me money to store in a storage unit.

Feng shui teaches us that you are in the best state of mind with minimal clutter, your house filled with only that is useful or truly beautiful. Who hasn’t faced a closet, box or garage filled with ‘crap’ that was once a necessity, and cringed at the overwhelming mess and disorder? Oh, and moving time! Oh, the cumulative crush!

Beyond being expensive, frivolous, distracting and wasteful, this sort of behavior/mentality is downright destructive. Destructive because it destroys natural resources to create all these silly products, and destructive because many of them end up in landfills or garbage patches in the ocean; plastic can last infinitely, by decomposing only into tiny pieces which then can be consumed by sea creatures — and then by us.

It also just feels so much better to live simpler, cleaner and smarter. To not buy into all the advertising (you need far less beauty products than you think!) To mend and repair instead of to throw away and buy new. To say ‘F U’ to the system, the crazed crowds trampling into Best Buy on Black Friday. To do more with less. To be frugal. Your mind is more clear, your pride and identity more intact, your time more free, your house more clean, your transitions that much easier, and your conscience that much more calm.

Could you be just as happy or happier with less? What experiences would you trade for the things you now own? Do you regret going into debt? Can you imagine yourself living in a tiny cottage if it, though humble, had a beautiful view and a garden and your life was filled with meaning and fulfillment? Would you choose to work less hours, be less “well off” but enjoy your precious time more? Do you feel the need to compete with the Joneses?

Watch The Lightbulb Conspiracy to learn more about how we are manipulated by the system into buying more, more, more (this focuses on planned obsolescence, but mass advertising, which is omnipresent, is its partner in crime).

And consider the words of a Romantic, William Wordsworth. Imagine his lament if he were to see the state of things today!


          THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.